Belarusian refugees fleeing to Europe hits all-time high as Minsk becomes more isolated

By bne IntelliNews March 2, 2023

The number of Belarusians seeking refuge in the European Union reached an all-time high in 2022, according to reports from the union's asylum agency, the Kyiv Independent reports, as Minsk became increasingly isolated.

A total of 5,051 asylum applications were filed by Belarusians in the past year alone, surpassing the numbers from 2021 and 2020, which were 3,817 and 1,193 respectively.

The refugees are fleeing from a brutal crackdown by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko following the falsified August 2020 presidential elections that returned the former collective farm boss to power and sparked extended nationwide protests. Most of the opposition leaders are now either in exile or in jail.

Belarusians seeking refuge in the EU have had a relatively high success rate in gaining asylum status, with recognition rates in 2022 standing at 88%, as reported by the European Union Agency for Asylum. Among citizenships receiving at least 1,000 decisions last year, Belarusians ranked second only to Syrians, who had a 94% success rate, and just above Ukrainians, who had an 86% success rate.

The Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly has estimated that between 200,000 to 500,000 Belarusians have fled their country, out of a total population of around 9mn.

Belarusian prosecutors have ordered lengthy jail sentences for a number of opposition leaders, including exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who is believed to have won the 2020 presidential elections by a landslide, standing in for her husband who was a leading candidate until he was jailed on trumped up charges before the election. Tikhanovskaya has also been found guilty in January of organising a coup d'état and was sentenced to 19 years in jail in absentia last year.

"I am not surprised to learn that the prosecutor has asked for 19 years in the Belarus regime's fake trial against me," Tikhanovskaya told journalists. "It has nothing to do with justice; it is just personal revenge against me and others opposing the regime. It will only make us fight even harder."

The sentence was met with international criticism, with many countries calling for the release of the opposition leaders and an end to the ongoing political crisis in Belarus. The European Union has imposed sanctions on Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko, over alleged human rights abuses and electoral fraud.

Isolation increases

Lukashenko’s falsification of the 2020 election results had already made Belarus a pariah, but his open backing of Russia in its war on Ukraine has intensified the pressure and made Lukashenko entirely dependent on the Kremlin for both money and political support to maintain his regime.

In a recent investigation the Kyiv Independent published details of a document that outlined Russia’s demands on Minsk as part of the ongoing efforts to create a Union State that would see a de facto merger with Russia. Lukashenko has been resisting the change as it would almost certainly result in him being replaced as head of state.

Lukashenko commented on the document on February 25 saying it "might have been" written three years ago when Moscow and Minsk were discussing the formation of integration roadmaps but played down the importance of the document down, the Kyiv Independent reports.

In the meantime, Minsk continues to offer Moscow military help and Russian air forces in particular have been using Belarusian airfields as a base from which to launch bombing and missile attacks on Ukraine.

Ukraine has fortified its northern border with Belarus to prevent a repeat of the invasion via that route a year ago. This week Kyiv also announced the withdrawal from agreements signed in 1995 and 2011 on border checkpoints with Russia and Belarus.

In the same week Ukraine targeted the Machulishchy airfield near Minsk that is home to Russian bombers as part of a wave of drone strikes on February 28 that were targeting energy and military targets in Russia and Belarus.

Reportedly a Russian A-50 early warning and control aircraft was heavily damaged in the attack on the Belarusian airfield. The radar system of the Soviet-built A-50 can simultaneously track up to 150 targets at a distance of up to 230 km or large targets such as ships at a distance of up to 400 km.

The UK Defence Ministry said the same day that the loss of the aircraft will “likely leave six operational A-50s in service, further constraining Russian air operations,” Kyiv Independent reports.

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